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The Pillars of the Earth

August 2010

Props and costumes

Above: Executive Producer David Rosemont discusses some very special props – and an ‘animatronic’ baby

Above: First assistant director Philip Chipera discusses the close teamwork required

Last month, I took a look at the thousands of costumes and props used in the making of The Pillars of the Earth. This month, I am moving from the micro to the macro to examine the locations and settings in which these tiny, but vital, elements of visual story-telling appear.

In theatre and film, a set is any purpose-built area in which dramatic action takes place. It can be small and simple, like the shadowy lobby where Gloucester confronts King Stephen in The Pillars of the Earth; or large and complex like the Kingsbridge Cathedral construction site. Objects or buildings on a set do not have to be complete; they just have to appear to be so on film.

Incompleteness was a feature of the Kingsbridge Cathedral construction site set. This was partly because The Pillars of the Earth is a story about the building of a cathedral, but mainly because, thanks to modern technology, it was not necessary to make the very solid looking stone walls on the set more than twenty feet high. Images of the upper part of the Cathedral’s walls, including its infamous collapsing vault, would be, I was told, generated by computer and added into the film in the post production phase.

The area on the film onto which these images are projected is known as the “green screen”. This gets its name from the sheets of tarpaulin, generally green or blue in colour, which you see stretched across lightweight scaffolding all over a modern film set. These sheets provide the celluloid equivalent of a blank canvas and are included in the early, rough, footage of a film generally with on-screen notes attached instructing the post production team to remove things like power lines or chandeliers or, in the case of Pillars, to add a crumbling vault

However, incompleteness was most certainly not a feature of the Kingsbridge village set. In fact, it was such a wonderfully detailed reconstruction of the medieval scene that had previously only existed in my head, a shiver went down my spine as I walked through it. It was quite amazing to see my fantasy eleventh century English village transformed into reality in a field just outside twenty first century Budapest. The lifelike set also allowed the actors playing the characters from The Pillars of the Earth to relate to their surroundings as well as each other, and it gave the Fleece Fair, with its action packed finale, a very realistic location in the shadow of the mostly-virtual Cathedral.

The sets for the Pillars mini-series were, like all others, purpose-built. There are two main reasons for this: firstly, it is the best way of meeting the requirements of a particular production and, secondly, it takes into account the need to allow the complicated machinery of film-making easy access. Even though the heavy, clumsy gear used in the early days of cinema has now been replaced by lighter, more portable equipment, access is still an issue and purpose–built sets can be made flexible enough to allow the use of different camera angles, and resilient enough to permit the use of fire, water and weather effects.

Despite the obvious advantages of purpose-built sets, locations remain very popular with filmmakers for financial and artistic reasons. In film, as in life, time is money and building sets takes up quite a bit of both. So, both the schedule and the budget were behind the decision to film several big scenes from The Pillars of the Earth on location in a modern, working quarry. It was surprising how quickly, once the modern workers in yellow vests and safety helmets had been removed and replaced with pick wielding medieval labourers, the quarry slipped back in time.

Artistic considerations are just as important as financial ones in film making and nothing can impart authenticity like a good location. It is one thing to play a part on a set built to look like a quarry and quite another to do it in the heat, stones and dust of a real one.

Authenticity was one of the reasons why the makers of the mini-series used the impressive, ready-made, interiors of several Austrian and Hungarian castles to shoot the court and conspiracy scenes in The Pillars of the Earth. They also saved time and money by not having to build, however incompletely, complicated reproductions of eleventh century buildings. Yet, using the real thing did highlight the disadvantages of location shooting. The walls of ancient castles cannot be moved to satisfy a director’s vision; their corridors can be too narrow to accommodate cameras and their ceilings too low to allow scenes to be easily lit. However, these inconveniences paled into insignificance beside the atmosphere and authenticity provided by the castle locations.

The makers of the mini-series used the different qualities offered by a set or location shoot to enhance their interpretation of the story. For example, in the early part of The Pillars of the Earth, there are a series of scenes set in a wood that show what happens to Tom Builder and his family after he is fired from William Hamleigh’s construction site. Scenes that involved intimate dialogue or intense emotion like the death of Agnes and Johnny Eightpence’s rescue of her abandoned baby, Jonathan, were filmed in a small wood on a specially constructed set. This allowed the camera to move in closer; lessened distraction; and heightened the drama. However, a woodland location was used for Tom’s marvellously evocative description of his vision of a cathedral and for the scenes in which he, and his elder son, Alfred, fight off some thieves.

Whether a scene is shot with or without green screen, in a studio, on a set, or in a castle on location, however, at the end of the long post-production schedule, everything must hang seamlessly together if the film is to be credible. Thankfully, the makers of The Pillars of the Earth have fulfilled this difficult brief wonderfully well.

I am sure that, when you see the ‘finished’ cathedral in The Pillars of the Earth you will, like me, be unable to tell what is purpose built set and what is location; what is green screen and what is actual building. I hope that, again like me, you are so completely taken in by the magic of film making that the only thing that matters is the story!

See you next month.

— Ken Follett

August 2010



The TV series official site

See the Tandem/Muse/Scott Free website for the production, for information on the filming, cast and crew news and Ken’s blog… www.the-pillars-of-the-earth.tv/